Congress should deny war powers
The Islamic State is evil. But that's no reason for America to go to war again in the Middle East. Or for Congress to approve years more of conflict.
The president requested formal legal authority to war against the militants —more than six months after dropping the first bomb on the self-proclaimed caliphate. The U.S. is defending a gaggle of frenemies from a far weaker foe unable to seriously threaten America.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State has gone through several incarnations dating back to 1999. For a long time the Obama administration ignored the group's gains, recognizing that it was more about insurgency than terrorism, and was targeting Middle Eastern countries, not the U.S.
The administration reversed course when the group's advances threatened Kurdistan's capital of Erbil and Iraq's Yazidi community. Even so, the mission seemed limited, until the beheading of two American hostages transformed administration policy.
Now President Barack Obama claims the Islamic State threatens "U.S. national security." But how can a few thousand insurgents, locked in bitter combat with several Middle Eastern nations, endanger the globe's superpower?
The administration created yet another pseudo-coalition of roughly 60 nations and the European Union, with U.S. forces responsible for over 90 percent of the airstrikes as of last week. "ISIL is going to lose," declared the president. But, reported the Associated Press, foreign fighters continue to join "in unprecedented numbers."
In seeking congressional authority the administration is playing on emotions, highlighting the Islamic State's crimes. Moreover, hostage Kayla Mueller's killing "fueled congressional outrage and renewed calls to defeat" the organization, reported USA Today.
Yet her tragic fate demonstrates the group's limited reach. The only U.S. citizens harmed by the Islamic State are those who voluntarily traveled to a war zone.
The group has succeeded only because of others' failings. In Syria, a civil war destroyed the political order. In Iraq, the sectarian Shia central government spawned a corresponding Sunni counter-reaction.
The Islamic State found the going much tougher once it moved beyond select areas of Iraq and Syria. Indeed, the movement has targeted nations with a million or more men under arms. Protecting the militants from this formidable collection of enemies is, paradoxically, Washington, by taking over other nations' defense duties.
Unfortunately, the proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force would further entangle America in sectarian war without addressing the reasons for the Islamic State's success. The measure would leave in place the 2001 AUMF, directed against al-Qaida, under which the administration improbably claimed authority to attack the Islamic State, a different group that had nothing to do with 9/11 and that has not attacked America.
Moreover, the new measure would be a dangerous expansion of executive power. First, the administration requested authority to wage at least three more years of war. In December, Secretary of State John Kerry also urged "provisions for extension" of such a limit.
Second, there is no geographic limit. Today the U.S. is operating in Iraq and Syria. The new AUMF would authorize combat anywhere.
Third, the measure does not limit war to the Islamic State. Also included are "any closely related successor entity" and "associated persons or forces," meaning the group's allies, defined as "fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners." That would cover almost any Syrian opposition group, from the al-Nusra Front to so-called moderates, as well as Sunni tribes, former Baathists, and anyone else opposed to the Shia-majority government in Iraq.
Fourth, the resolution bars only "enduring offensive ground operations." However, the current operation is described as a matter of America's "inherent right of individual and collective self-defense" even though the Islamic State did not attack America. Moreover, most "offensive ground operations" can be redefined as a means to defend someone somewhere. The president's transmittal letter also exempted a variety of activities from any limit — rescue operations, actions against the group's leadership, intelligence work, "missions to enable kinetic strikes," and "other forms of advice and assistance."
Fifth, instead of turning the war over to threatened Arab states, the new AUMF would assure Washington's "allies" that they need not worry about their own defense. Instead of intervening temporarily to give time for surrounding states to act, the administration plans to create a herd of long-term military dependents.
If Congress truly is concerned about legality, it should enforce the 2001 AUMF. Any new measure should sharply limit military operations. Legislators should end old wars, not rationalize new ones.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.